In Fast Color, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a young woman whose nightmares are a problem for her, and for everybody else.
When she has these dreams, powerful telekinetic forces send out shock waves that make her the epicenter of minor earthquakes, a trait that has attracted the interest of government agents. They pursue her as she makes her way across the Great Plains of the American West, toward her hometown and a reckoning with her past.
These early scenes are intriguing and atmospheric — there is a spare, elegant quality to the landscapes that feel less like a sci-fi movie than one of those 1970s road movies about loners whose isolation is reinforced by the vast, empty spaces they traverse.
Ruth (Mbatha-Raw) is an appealingly punk-like fugitive who gets help from regular folks — a sympathetic convenience store clerk, then a bartender who gives her a place to stay after she volunteers to mop up. Ruth also barters for water, the most precious commodity in what turns out to be a near future defined by an environmental catastrophe that has interrupted the cycle of clouds and rainfall, and left the earth scorched and dry.
Somehow, Ruth’s unique powers are a key to addressing this crisis, which is why the government is tracking her — the details of this are revealed once Ruth finally returns to her girlhood home, and has a decisive reunion with her mother (Lorraine Toussaint).
Fast Color, alas, is one of those movies that get less interesting as explanations for its particular mythology become more literal. Key relationships needed to give the movie emotional substance are never deeply felt. Director Julia Hart wants to tell a story about the connection between the matrilineal and the supernatural, but she needs mothers and daughters to do it, and the family relationships here never feel convincing.
This is disappointing and a bit puzzling, since the talent here is strong. Mbatha-Raw proved herself as a capable lead all the back with Belle, and followed that up with strong supporting work in Concussion.
OK, she was also in Jupiter Ascending, but that was an indiscriminate cast-killer that also claimed Eddie Redmayne and Channing Tatum, and was certainly not her fault. Also, Fast Color is a defiantly low-fi sci-fi movie (special effects kept to an intentional minimum) that stands in pointed opposition to bloated, self-indulgent spectacles like Jupiter.
Fast Color is disciplined and restrained, yet feels a few tweaks away from being the rousing origin story it aspires to be.
Fast Color. Directed by Julia Hart. With Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, David Strathairn, Saniyya Sidney, and Christopher Denham. Distributed by LD Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Parents’ guide: PG-13 (violence and brief strong language)